Hong Kong, China – Hong Kong’s top court will hear an appeal by prominent investigative journalist Bao Choy that has strong implications for journalists’ access to public information on Wednesday, which is World Press Freedom Day.
Choy, 38, is seeking to overturn an earlier conviction over her use of vehicle registration records from the territory’s Transport Department in a documentary she was making about the so-called Yuen Long attack, caused by a group of more than 100 men during the 2019 pro-democracy protests.
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Bringing their action, prosecutors said Choy’s declared use of “traffic and transport related matters” on the forms did not match the actual use of the information.
In April 2021, Choy was found guilty on two counts of making false statements to obtain information and fined 6,000 Hong Kong dollars ($764) by the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts. Wednesday’s appeal to Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal is her last chance to overturn the conviction.
Choy declined to comment on the upcoming appeal, saying she did not want to risk affecting the ongoing legal proceedings.
Speaking in January, after she was given the go-ahead to proceed, Choy said she was persevering with the appeal because it had far-reaching implications for the Hong Kong media industry.
“Whether I win or lose, the public may already have made their own judgement,” Choy said.
The case hinges on what constitutes “traffic and transport-related matters” – one of three reasons available to those searching public records online – and whether it includes reporting. The other options are “transport-related legal proceedings” or the “sale and purchase of vehicle”.
Choy’s lawyers have previously argued that Choy opted for the “related matters” because the issue was about the use of a vehicle on a road, and have also spoken about the risk to media freedom from an overly-narrow interpretation of the term “-related”.
Prior to Choy’s arrest, it was common practice for Hong Kong media to access public records, such as vehicle, land and company registrations, for use in their reporting and no journalists had been prosecuted.
The Court of Final Appeal’s ruling could outline boundaries for local media and investigative journalism in Hong Kong. It is not clear when the decision will be handed down.
“Regardless of the result, it would not change my mind, I believe in the public’s conscience,” Choy said.
Journalists under pressure
Hong Kong’s media environment has changed drastically since Beijing imposed a national security law on Hong Kong in June 2020.
Two independent news outlets critical of the government – Apple Daily and Stand News – have had their funds frozen and executives arrested on national security and incitement charges.
In 2022, the non-government organisation Reporters Without Borders ranked Hong Kong’s press freedom 148th in the world compared with 80th two years before.
In March 2023, the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA), the city’s largest union for media workers, said they had received multiple reports from journalists about being tailed by unknown people to their workplaces and outside court hearings.
HKJA chairman Ronson Chan, who himself was followed by pro-Beijing media in 2021, said the industry was facing many difficulties, including legal risks and pressure from authorities.
While press freedom is guaranteed in the Basic Law, known also as Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, Chan said there were few legal provisions spelling out what that meant in practice.
“We have high expectations of the Court of Final Appeal. Let these judges who have a good understanding of the Basic Law decide how to make sense of this incident,” Chan said.
Choy’s arrest in November 2020 shocked many Hong Kong journalists who had commonly used public records in their work.
Choy had used the information to produce an award-winning documentary about the mob attack, which took place on July 21, 2019, when train users, including some who had attended a pro-democracy protest earlier in the day, were assaulted by white-shirted thugs at the station in Yuen Long, a suburban part of western Hong Kong.
The attack came amid heightened tensions over mass opposition to a bill put forward by then Chief Executive Carrie Lam that would have allowed people suspected of wrongdoing to be extradited to mainland China.
The violent assault was livestreamed on social media but it was 39 minutes before police arrived at the scene.
Choy, who joined public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) in 2007 and later became a freelance producer for its documentary series “Hong Kong Connection”, attempted to piece together how the attack had taken place.
She tried to identify the owners of the cars that had brought the perpetrators of the attack to the station, since the licence plates had been caught on security cameras.
After Choy’s arrest, an employee of the pro-Beijing newspaper, Ta Kung Pao, was arrested in 2021 on the same charge – of making false statements to obtain registration records of a vehicle.
But the charge was later dropped and the Ta Kung Pao employee was let go after signing a 2,000 Hong Kong dollars ($254) bind-over, guaranteeing not to commit the same act again.
Seven men were eventually put on trial for the Yuen Long attack and, in July 2021, they were jailed for as long as seven years. The judge said they had taken the law into their own hands and instilled “extreme terror” in residents.
Professor Francis Lee Lap-fung, of the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s School of Journalism and Communication, said Choy’s case showed how the government had tightened media access to public information in the past few years.
“This makes journalistic reporting more difficult and some Hong Kong media and journalists had virtually given up on using the various government registries and databases,” Lee said.
“It directly undermines the capability of the news media to conduct independent investigation of matters of public interest.”
Choy lost her job with RTHK after the court case but she retains her determination to tell the stories of Hong Kong.
After completing a Neiman fellowship at Harvard University, this year she co-founded an online media outlet called The Collective, which focuses on producing in-depth reporting on Hong Kong affairs.
The Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Lee noted that despite the changed conditions and limited resources, a number of small-scale online outlets had sprung up in the city in recent years to continue producing professional and critical journalism.
“They might not have the influence of the previous online outlets… but their presence does illustrate the resilience of professional journalism in Hong Kong,” Lee said, adding that the city no longer had influential news media outlets owned by people outside the establishment.
The outcome of the ongoing cases concerning the now-defunct Apple Daily and Stand News will provide a further indication of just what the Hong Kong administration deems acceptable, he added.